Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. This week we’ve got another In The Barber’s Chair, where we take the first page of someone’s novel or short story and pep it up a tad.
If you fancy a turn in the barber’s chair, send me just your first page and a title – no explanatory blather please – via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. I can’t promise I’ll get round to all of them but I’ll do my best. By submitting you’re agreeing to let me publish your work on this blog forever, along with my feedback.
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For aspiring writers, honest feedback is rare to the point of being almost non-existent. The point here isn’t to skewer authors for mistakes, but to help us see problems clearly, so we can take action. I suggest you read through the extract slowly, then look at my suggestions. We’re learning to analyse text with a critical eye. It’s like activating bullet-time – we slow the reading experience down so you can see the mechanics of what’s going on. A few months of this and you’ll be limboing under a volley of 9mm parabellum slugs with the insouciance of a drunk maitre’d.
Right. Editor-vision ACTIVATE!
Counting To Infinity (by Jack)
It started with a funeral. When a coffin closes, a window opens, or something like that. My grandmother had been dying her whole life, I know, I know, everyone’s dying, but her more than most. She spent the best part of her life in hospital, so when she stopped dying and actually died it came as a surprised to precisely no one. And as I stood on the grass, under the crisp Autumn sky, the hearse crawled down the long drive between the leafless trees, all I could think was how the only thing I was dying for, was a cigarette.
I’ve never got emotional about people dying, I always feel like I should, but, I dunno, it never affects me like it does everyone else. I remember as a kid, my parents calling me from hospital to say Grandad had died and I dramatically flung myself onto the sofa and tried my hardest to cry. Not because I felt like crying but because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do. Unless I squeezed out a tear, It was as if I didn’t care. I think I started screaming “WHY?!” and punching a pillow or something, just like he would have wanted…
The service was mercifully short and the food at the wake surprisingly good. I was leaning against the worktop in the kitchen with my phone out flicking through my contacts with the fake intensity of someone who didn’t want to be talked to. I was half listening to people I half recognised from photo albums and the last time a family member died. They were making small talk about their work and how good little Johnny was settling in at school.
Please don’t talk to me.
You have no interest in my life.
Please don’t pretend like you do.
Oh fucks sake.
“How’s school going?”
“Great” I said “Just, same old, same old” Trying to give her nothing she could ask a follow up question on.
“You must be nearly finishing high school now?”
“Well that’s exciting”
One syllable answers tend to kill conversations.
I awkwardly shuffled out of the kitchen and into the main living room to find my dad standing in the corner holding a glass of red wine giving person after person a half smile and nod as they came up, touched his arm and said some variation of “I am sorry”. I don’t know whether he wanted me to come talk to him but he seemed busy and I didn’t really want to talk to anyone.
My Grandmothers house, where we were having the wake, was so typical of a Grandmother. Hand knitted sofa covers, plates with the faces of forgotten celebrities on, a cuckoo clock that I can’t remember ever working. It was so cliché, it almost looked like a satire. I walked out into the garden where there was the same boring elderly shit. A path of mis shapen slabs snaked away from the back door past a pond and some flower beds up to a shed. There was a million little gnomes and windmills and crap. When I was young I used to think all this stuff was so cool, I’d spend hours playing with all the little figures and making stories about them all, now they all just looked sad. The garden hadn’t been looked after since Gran had got really sick and so all the gnomes were being swallowed by long grass. They all just stared at me, as if praying I’d rescue them from their inevitable fate at the hands of time, I just stared straight back.
It started with a funeral.
Good opening. Simple, clear, gives us a couple of questions – whose funeral? What started?
When a coffin closes, a window opens, or something like that.
Okay, still on board. A mildly amusing joke, but crucially one that reveals character. Normally I’d be jumping on redundant phrases like ‘or something like that’, but here it’s tipping us off that this isn’t a transparent third-person narrator but an opinionated first. This narration is sardonic and conversational, ruminating. Fine. I can go with this.
My grandmother had been dying her whole life, I know, I know, everyone’s dying, but her more than most.
At this point red warning lights started blinking all over my instrument panel. I can just about swallow the first half, ‘My grandmother had been dying her whole life’ – it’s a bit of a meaningless truism, but at least it answers one of our questions (who’s funeral is it?) while giving us a sense of character. The second half feels like a failure of nerve. It’s as if you’ve realised it’s a bit of a trite thing to say, and you’re trying to head off the reader’s criticism.
The Turkey City Lexicon (so called because it was made at the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop) on TV Tropes calls this a Signal From Fred. If one of your characters is criticising the writing (‘this doesn’t make sense!’, ‘this sounds like a bad movie’) then perhaps your subconscious is trying to tell you something. Don’t keep the line while attempting to salvage it with a meta-joke. Kill the obvious, weak bit of writing, and push yourself to say something original, engaging, and worth reading.
Look, I’ll go further. The fact that this sentence answers one of our initial questions (who’s funeral is it?) is a bug, not a feature. By satisfying our curiosity this early, you’re killing a significant portion of our motivation for reading on. I’m not advocating page upon page of wankily coy ambiguity, but on a first page, you need to make sure that you use the time in-between posing a question and answering it to hook the reader with several bigger questions. It’s all about establishing the push-pull dynamic of teaser and payoff that will propel the reader through the story. Ideally, your first page should raise a question that doesn’t get answered until the end of the book.
She spent the best part of her life in hospital, so when she stopped dying and actually died it came as a surprised to precisely no one.
Klaxons are blaring now. The zeppelin is ablaze, its crew repenting sins. Your beautiful opening is tanking horribly.
Why are you taking us out of the narrative present? Why, four lines in, are we wheeling back to study a little potted history of a character we have no investment in?
There’s loads of fluff here – ‘the best part’ can be cut to ‘most’; ‘stopped dying and’ can be cut with no loss of meaning; ‘actually’ is a woolly bit of emphasis that seems harmless but robs prose of conviction, as is ‘precisely’ – adverbs are suspect at the best of times, but these two are almost never permissible.
I’m not too bothered by the typo – ‘it came as a surprised’. It happens to all of us, and you shouldn’t castigate yourself over little errors. The only reason I bring it up at all is to suggest you always have a couple of friends read over your first page before submitting. Typos shouldn’t have anything to do with the quality of the writing, but when you’ve read hundreds of manuscripts you start to notice a correlation between number of typos and poor prose. That creates an unfortunate prejudice, whereby a single typo on the first page immediately has you expecting a bad manuscript, and looking for reasons to stop reading. Once the novel’s up and running, the odd mistake here and there is unlikely to derail an editor or agent, but on your first page it can be a body blow.
But here’s that Signal From Fred again – if her death surprised no one, why are you telling us? If it is unremarkable to your fictional characters, why do you expect the reader to care? If you’re stopping the action this early to give us a character’s backstory, it had better be fucking mindblowing. If you’d written:
Grandmother was supposed to be immortal – the amulet she had taken from the decapitated Vü regent regenerated dead tissue – so we were all surprised when, at her 271st birthday party, she clutched her chest, purpled, and faceplanted into the Planter’s Punch.
then maybe, just maybe, you’d have got away with it. As it is, no need to tell us. You can suggest she’s always been sickly via a snatch of dialogue at the funeral later on.
I’ve never got emotional about people dying, I always feel like I should, but, I dunno, it never affects me like it does everyone else. I remember as a kid, my parents calling me from hospital to say Grandad had died and I dramatically flung myself onto the sofa and tried my hardest to cry. Not because I felt like crying but because I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do.
With the exception of ‘dunno’ – which feels a bit twee and forced, especially when it’s the only phonetically rendered word on the page – I like this paragraph. It feels real. It reveals character. True, you’re abandoning the narrative present to give us an anecdote from the past, but you’re showing, not telling. It gives us an insight into the narrator, and a lens through which to view his behaviour. It feels like it might be setting up one of his chief conflicts throughout the novel – his struggle to connect with his authentic feelings, the tension between what he thinks he’s supposed to be feeling and what he genuinely feels.
Even once was too much for this inelegant piece of emotional signposting. Cut both. How Jack feels about this incident should be evident in the language he uses to describe it. Don’t step in afterwards to make sure. It’s cowardice.
The service was mercifully short and the food at the wake surprisingly good.
‘We spent Tuesday on the beach and this afternoon we’re going to visit the cathedral. Wish you were here, love Jack x’
Cut this what-I-did-on-my-holidays bullshit. If it’s not important enough to dramatise, fine – just insert a line break, and start a new scene at the moment things get interesting again. Engage the reader’s five senses. Favour the concrete over the abstract. Give us crunchy, specific details.
Telling us that the ‘food’ was ‘surprisingly good’ shuts us out of the moment. You need to be picking strong, specific nouns and allowing them to carry the bulk of the semantic freight. Here, instead, you use weak, general nouns then modify them with value judgements. Imagine being in a restaurant and looking down at a menu, on which is written ‘Food – £18.95’ then, in the description ‘surprisingly good’.
Please don’t talk to me.
You have no interest in my life.
Please don’t pretend like you do.
Oh fucks sake.
Who is saying this? Even if Jack finds this a dull conversation, you need to give the reader the ability to imagine this scene externally. We need some characterisation of the other person, physicality, tone of voice, how they’re dressed, even smell. One of the primary pleasures of literature is the transportation into another world. Here you’re just shrugging and saying: ‘Imagine it yourselves.’
My Grandmothers house, where we were having the wake, was so typical of a Grandmother. Hand knitted sofa covers, plates with the faces of forgotten celebrities on, a cuckoo clock that I can’t remember ever working. It was so cliché, it almost looked like a satire.
This isn’t so much a Signal as a Decapitated Horse’s Head In The Bed From Fred. ‘It was so cliché, it almost looked like a satire’? Well that’s all right then, as long as you, the author, know that it feels two-dimensional and trite, go ahead and write whatever you like!
Perhaps, instead, you should see these lines as an opportunity to make us believe in this grandmother, to care about her. Instead of ‘plates with the faces of forgotten celebrities on’, describe one plate, and name the celebrity. Describe what he or she looks like. Where is the plate in the room? Is it cracked and dusty, or fastidiously polished?
Don’t settle for ‘cuckoo clock’ – it just feels like a stock object you’ve dragged and dropped from our collective consciousness into your story. Describe this cuckoo clock – have it go off, let us see and hear how it works. Consider not just making it up, but going on youtube and watching clips of different cuckoo clocks going off, then create an amalgamation of your favourite ones.
No need to specify ‘hand knitted’ over ‘knitted’. Give us the colours, at least. And please, can we have at least one startling, incongruous object? Something so peculiar that it must be true? Maybe put a post on Facebook asking people what the weirdest object their grandparents had in the house was. Then magpie it for your novel.
Listless, cynical narrators are hard to pull off. As an author, you need to be labouring hard in the background, hinting at a rich fictional world so we don’t get dragged down into a mire of ‘meh, whatever’.
There’s some good writing here, but you need to be working much, much harder to bring Jack’s surroundings into crisp focus. Every line needs research, more specificity, a sense of a textured, complex environment.
The first page is your novel’s shop window. It’s where you make the case that we should devote hours of our finite lives reading your novel over all the other delights the world has to offer. Hook us. If your narrator is bored by it all, chances are we will be too. Give us a mystery, or put the narrator in jeopardy (physical or emotional). Make your zeppelin soar.
If you enjoyed this, I expect you’ll enjoy my award-winning book on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.
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